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Ulster GAA Club & Community Development Conference - 15 November 2008

Margaret Ritchie Address to Ulster GAA Club and Community Development Conference 2008
Minister O’Cuiv, members of the Ulster Council, staff and members of the Association, ladies and gentlemen.  Good afternoon.  
It is my pleasure to be with you at this your 2nd Club and Community Development Conference.   Thank you Danny for your kind invitation to take part in today’s events.  I am honoured to have been asked to jointly launch the Ulster GAA Community Development Unit along with my Southern colleague Minister O’Cuiv.
It is hard to believe that a full year has past since I closed last year’s conference.
It has been a year that has brought successes both on and off the pitch, but particularly with the exciting and innovative progress in the area of community development.
It has been a year of successes across the spectrum of gaelic games, at club and county level.  A remarkable year, and one to be extremely proud of when reflecting on Ulster’s achievements.
Last year I closed my address by setting you the challenge of…‘Bringing Sam back to Ulster’.  I am thrilled to acknowledge that Ulster football rose to that challenge.
Congratulations to Tyrone winning the All-Ireland Senior and Minor titles in the same year!  The first county in 28 years to win both titles, and the first Ulster county ever to achieve this incredible landmark.

Shared Future and  Good Relations

Today you have adopted the theme of “Strengthening Community Cohesion through the Development of GAA Clubs and Volunteers”.  
The GAA in Ireland occupies a special place in the social and community life of many towns and villages.  It is I believe Ireland’s largest amateur sporting, community and cultural organisation.  
The Ulster Council with its 9 County Boards, 580 clubs and 250,000 volunteer members has a proven history of supporting and in many cases forming the backbone of many local communities.  The experience and talent of your dedicated volunteer base cannot be overlooked or understated.
I want to take this opportunity to encourage you in the work you are taking forward to strengthen community cohesion and to take a few moments to say how I believe we can achieve this goal together.
As Minister for Social Development my priority is to meet the needs of those who are most disadvantaged in our communities by:  
I am committed to making a difference by delivering programmes and policies that make a meaningful impact and create positive change.
I am also committed to the ‘shared future’ and ‘good relations’ agenda sitting at the heart of all social policy.  Segregation and polarisation has cost us dearly in economic, but more importantly, in social terms.  
Today I am thankful to say that the binds of division are dissolving.
In government and in communities across Northern Ireland we aspire to lead Northern Ireland into a shared future.  By working in partnership (government, private sector and local communities) we are making progress.  There remains however much more to do if we are to achieve proper reconciliation.
In Northern Ireland a Shared Future is the only way forward.  My vision of ‘shared future’ and ‘good relations’ is one where everyone has the same life chances and opportunities.  One where we feel comfortable and safe living, working and playing together.  I stress living, not coexisting.
I believe that we cannot sit back and wait for this to happen.  We need to be active.  We need to reach out in a true spirit of reconciliation and inclusion, and we need to do it now.
This is where we need your help.
In the eyes of many the GAA is a purely sporting organisation.   However today’s conference and in particular the creation of a dedicated Community Development Unit, is testament that the GAA has a lot more to offer people.   
In ‘Beir Bua Nua’, your strategic plan, you put inclusion and cohesion at the top of your priorities.
I draw reference to initiatives like ‘The Belfast Cúchulainns’, the first ever cross community Under 16 Hurling Team, the first of several which you plan to establish over the next year.
This project has successfully encouraged collaboration through sport between 4 post-primary schools in Belfast bringing together young people from both Protestant and Catholic working class communities in a spirit of respect and diversity.
The team’s victory at the American Inter-continental Youth Games was just reward for the value of such an initiative and the hard work and dedication of all involved.
The ‘Game of three halves’ cross-community coaching in east Belfast has also caught my attention.  Now in its second year, the scheme organised through Knock Presbyterian Church, brings GAA coaches to work alongside their soccer and rugby counterparts to involve 150 primary school children at summer coaching camps.  News that the ‘Game of three halves’ programme is set to be extended to other large urban areas next summer is very exciting.
I know that these are just some of the initiatives taking place across Ulster to spread Gaelic Games out from traditional heartlands.  They demonstrate Ulster GAA’s desire to develop new relationships with political parties, sporting and cultural groups and religious organisations.
I want to encourage you to think in new ways as you branch out from your sporting and cultural roots into community development activity, education and regeneration, to challenge the traditional mis-perceptions that many people hold of the GAA.  I believe you are well on your way to meeting this goal.

DSD Funding

Across Government we recognise the importance of working with sporting bodies, including the GAA to bring about the positive change that we all want to see.  In the Department for Social Development I believe we already have a successful track record of working with the GAA.
For example through Neighbourhood Renewal we have funded the Strabane Sigersons Gaelic Athletic Club to promote health and wellbeing among children, young people and particularly women, by taking part in athletic activities.  
Also in Strabane, quite a number of GAA clubs have made good use of Local Community Funding to support activities and services in many small communities.
GAA staff are engaging with local community groups in both West and North Belfast, working to support delivery against local Neighbourhood Action Plan Priorities.
I am pleased to announce that St Peter's GAA Club in Lurgan has just been awarded £255,000 by my Department’s Modernisation Capital Fund programme towards the refurbishment of a purpose built sports hall.  It is one of a number of clubs to be supported through this programme.
It is my hope that we can continue to build on this work .


Turning to today’s focus, I am delighted to have been asked to launch the new Ulster GAA Community Development Unit.   I am particularly pleased that this is a shared responsibility with Eamon [or Minister O’Cuiv] underlining my support for North South cooperation.  
The Ulster GAA Council is ‘ahead of the game’.  It has recognised the importance of providing support for grass roots volunteers in ‘non-games’ areas.  This new Unit will be the hub for volunteer development, for strategic development and for community outreach initiatives.
My department is committed to encouraging and supporting this type of work.  I intend to release a new Volunteering Strategy at the end of the year which aims to promote this sort of active citizenship and social responsibility.  I again want to put on record my thanks to the Ulster GAA for their participation in the development of this strategy.
The Volunteering strategy will encourage people to get involved and build a better Northern Ireland; a society in which volunteering is the norm.  Working together I believe we can create a much stronger and more vibrant and sustainable voluntary and community sector.  
I know you have seen substantial progress in this area since appointing a community development manager.  I am pleased to announce that my department has just approved funding for two additional staff for this Unit as part of a two year pilot initiative.   
I spoke earlier about more conventional funding initiatives provided by my Department.  This cross-border and cross-community pilot project, with parallel projects delivered through the Church of Ireland and Voluntary Arts Ireland, is a deviation from the norm.  I am prepared to be bold, prepared to test new ways of working to challenge the status quo and move us forward as a society.  
These pilots are an opportunity to develop stronger working relationships between sport, arts and faith based organisations.  They will test alternative models for increasing and diversifying existing bodies of volunteers.  Neither the models nor the cross-border element of the projects have been tried before.
I am pleased that both governments have recognised the potential of these pilots.  The Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs has matched our contribution pound for pound.  It is important to understand that the lessons learned will be relevant to most all-Ireland voluntary organisations and will be disseminated across all 32 counties.
I am very much looking forward to the joint launch event of the projects and to having with me John Curran, Minister of State with responsibility for Community Affairs in the South.  The ‘throw in’ is pencilled in before Christmas and I look forward to seeing some of you at that launch.
Before I finish, I’d like to once again pay homage to you all, first and foremost GAA members and officials, but also unheralded volunteers in your communities.  
I understand the huge commitment of time required.  Please accept my encouragement and my thanks for putting so much in to the games you love and your unstinting service to your local communities.
Thank you.